Benedikt Erlingsson’s Hross Í Oss (‘Of Horses And Men’)
For all of Iceland’s cinematic history, a tendency has prevailed to portray rural Iceland as a base and hateful place, inhabited by a crude, simple folk of few words and many vices, a place whose stark natural beauty is tempered only by the ugly depression endemic to its populace. While I can’t exactly disagree with the factual accuracy of this assessment, it sure as hell becomes a tired cinematic trope the eightieth time or so that you sit through two hours of it. So imagine my surprise when Hross Í Oss* bravely attempts to mount this severely beaten and thoroughly dead horse, and actually succeeds in making the carcass seem fresh.
‘Carcass’ is a word I would, in fact, closely associate with Hross Í Oss. We see a few of them in it, and never is one of them shown with quite enough dignity to refer to it as a ‘body.’ The film is, essentially, a series of short, sharp vignettes, each one focussing on one or more resident of an unnamed Icelandic valley, and each one involving one or more horses. Said vignettes usually end in gruesome injury and/or death, alternately human and equine, all of it senseless and caused by stupidity, pride and negligence.
Rather than try to anthropomorphise the horses in any sentimental way, the humans are instead animalised, as if their physical closeness to and dependence upon nature has brought them closer to it, in both form and function; an admittedly simplistic theme, I suppose, but certainly not objectionably so. The confrontational perniciousness of human nature and motivation is unflinchingly contrasted with the valley’s horses and their… well, their horse-ness. I mean, they’re horses. They’re just going to do horse things. But the film pays careful attention to them, too, attempting (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to turn the horses’ passive nature into a tangible thing, an element that is as much a part of Erlingsson’s mise-en-scène as any camera frame or angle.
Furthermore, every major character relates far better to the film’s horses than to each other. The horses are where they deposit their emotional burdens, inadvertently exposing the true natures and personalities of the people around them, and bearing mute witness to every character study as the humans show their best and worst sides. They quarrel, celebrate, fail, succeed and die as the horses and the camera watches impassively.
Despite its generally morbid subject matter, there is a veneer of bleak humour to it all, delivered with a distinctly Central European drab, club-like simplicity. There is a total absence of tearjerker performances, soul-wrenching denouements or melodrama of any kind in Hross Í Oss, and it is one of the film’s foremost strengths, in my opinion. Tales are told with carefully cast faces, written into Ingvar Sigurðsson’s awkward sensitivity, Charlotte Bøving’s gently lusting eyes and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir’s stern disapproval. The film’s few conversations are tersely banal, while veteran cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s ever-excellent work similarly emphasizes the negative spaces of Iceland’s wilderness rather than masturbating any obvious landmarks.
The film is occasionally marred by an overzealous need to force-feed us with its message of how ‘we’re all really animals,’ and ‘how do we look through a horse’s eyes?’ Gratuitous close-ups literally show the horses’ eyes reflecting the world around them, and the mating rituals of horses and humans alike are closely intertwined in Hross Í Oss’s sole central storyline, to the point where the overt symbolism and parallels began to annoy me slightly.
Nevertheless, Hross Í Oss is a competently and confidently put-together little film, a minor triumph whose strengths are as silent and hidden as that of its cast of characters, both two and four-legged. It is bold, unassuming, honest and occasionally horrifying, but never delivering more nor less than what it promises: a simple film about simple folk and their horses.
*You’ll notice that I’m refraining from using the English translation of the title, as it is awful, and whoever thought of it should have their head examined (or just hire a translator the next time–my rates are very reasonable).